Movies explicitly set during the Covid pandemic are a risky thing as most people don’t want to be reminded about the hellscape of the past couple of years. Also, if we’re being honest, most of the films are fairly terrible. There are always exceptions, though, and the both the most recent and arguably the best of them is writer/director Andy Mitton‘s latest horror film, The Harbinger. It’s a rarity in that it succeeds beautifully on its own merits as an unsettling chiller while also infusing it with the details and fears from our shared pandemic nightmares.
Mavis (Emily Davis) is falling apart. Dreams featuring a frightening figure in a bird mask haunt her with nightmares that can sometimes last into the next day, and her waking hours are almost as stressful thanks to lockdowns, uncertainty over the virus, and concerns about getting sick. She calls the only friend she has for help, and with barely a hesitation, Monique (Gabby Beans) leaves the safety of her suburban home for the viral battlezone of the city. Monique’s father and brother (Raymond Anthony Thomas, Myles Walker) are understandably upset, but they know the two friends are bonded by a past experience. Monique discovers too late that the nightmares plaguing Mavis are infectious, and that the demonic figure draws its strength from our own feelings of loneliness and fear of being forgotten.
So yeah, Covid is boom time for the beak man.
Mitton’s fourth feature — after Yellowbrickroad (2010), We Go On (2016), and The Witch in the Window (2018) — once again marries terrifying ideas with emotionally resonant themes, but none of those earlier films capture that pairing as beautifully as The Harbinger. The film’s central horror plot could easily exist outside of the pandemic, and viewed apart from the Covid influences it’s still a terrifically creepy look at the power of bad dreams and the fear we all harbor about our own insignificance. All of that is magnified and made more horrifying, though, by the film’s smart use of pandemic details, concerns, and uncertainties. We’ve all lived this, and at some point over the last two years many of us have wondered if we were at the end… and if anyone would even notice.
The dream demon takes the appearance of a plague doctor as a knowing reference to the physicians who “treated” victims of the Black Death and other great plagues. The bird beak mask was designed to hold aromatic herbs that would block the smell of death, but it’s no less unnerving for the intent, and regardless, the figure’s presence was a clear signifier of doom and decay. Mitton and cinematographer Ludovica Isidori use the figure well and highlight its very specific presence through shadow and light, and the more Mavis and Mo discover about the demon behind the mask the more frightening it becomes.
The dream being isn’t trying to slash your flesh like Freddy Krueger or reveal some altered reality as in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) or Come True (2020) — it’s interested only in wearing you down, ramping up your fear, and making you believe that you just don’t matter. It’s an emotionally soul-crushing spiral, and it’s one that The Harbinger executes to brilliant and haunting effect.
The film spends time with Mavis and Mo, both together and apart, and their dynamics couldn’t be more different — Mavis is already a fragile shell when we meet her, but Mo is a firecracker staying afloat with her family through a combination of safety protocols and raw, playful joy. Mo offers a lifeline to her friend by way of that optimism, but as the dreams begin to infect her too that positivity begins to wane. Hopelessness is a devastating feeling, and the realization that the demon’s goal is to erase entire existences, to leave no trace of its victims in this world, is endlessly haunting.
The Harbinger is frightening in its own right, but the Covid connection heightens every aspect. A “virus” you can catch whether you believe in it or not, the uncertainty of who it was that infected you because past carriers have already been forgotten, the individual responsibility not to spread it further — this is the nightmare we’re currently living in, but twisted into a tight, terrifying, and emotionally dark horror gem.
As good as Mitton’s script and direction are, though, none of this would work without actors capable of carrying the weight of concerns both real and supernatural. Davis and Beans are fantastic in this regard, with the latter delivering a powerful performance as someone fueled as much by empathy as by fear. Their friendship feels real, as does Mo’s relationship with her family, and as the demon’s fingers pry into her subconscious the stakes grow even higher for the ones she loves. The fight to make a difference, to not be forgotten, is a gut punch that the film delivers with memorable imagery, some solid scares, and the horrifyingly plausible idea that we might not stand a chance.
Fear is the seed, both in The Harbinger and in our real-world predicament. Fear of dying, fear of being forgotten, even the fear of being told what to do (and then responding like an irrational ass), and that essential element for horror is the hero ingredient in this film. There are some immediate jumps and spooky images, but the movie’s greatest strength is the fear that creeps under your skin and into your thoughts. All we can do is fight back, refuse to give up, and never forget the ones around us enduring that same pandemic nightmare.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival